Government’s response to the equal marriage consultation

Quakers are officially very happy about this; the government has announced that under the new version of the proposals for equal marriage, “religious organisations” will be able to opt to celebrate marriages of same-sex couples. Funnily enough, it turns out that most people who responded to the consultation thought either that no same-sex marriages should be allowed at all, or that religious groups who wanted to celebrate them should be allowed to do so; nobody was jumping up and down saying “yes please, let’s have same-sex marriage and at all costs let’s keep it secular”. So that’s one piece of silliness out of the way; good.

And I stand by all my previous statements on the subject. Even more so.

But I’m now going to take a deep breath and say that I’m not sure Quakers should be quite so happy about the current proposals, because I’m not sure that we should unite with the view of “religion” that they assume. Please note that I say “I’m not sure”; I’m genuinely uncertain what’s going on here, because the response document is ambiguous on several key points.  But my friend Steve Holmes and our Friend Frank Cranmer point out something that strikes me as rather problematic.

As follows: “opt-in” to same-sex marriage will, the document states, happen at the level of the “religious organisation” not the individual congregation. That’s fine for Quakers, because we are (despite appearances) not congregational; decisions of Britain Yearly Meeting are binding for all Quaker meetings in Britain. But it’s not fine for those religious groups that, while they may have national representative bodies, are clear that authority always resides with the local congregation. If the Baptist Union (to pick a non-random example) has no binding authority that Baptists would recognise over local congregations, it is really very problematic for the government to say – as this consultation document does in effect say – “if the Baptist Union doesn’t opt in, no local Baptist church can”. That is the state telling a church how to run itself; and that’s not on. Especially if you’re a Baptist. Or a Quaker.

Link that with the emphasis in the consultation paper (also picked up by Frank and Steve) on the authority of individual “ministers” to make this or that decision about who gets married (er… no, and it’s not just Quakers who object to that); and you start to get the feeling that the government assumes all religious organisations run something like the Church of England. Or rather, something like how some people think the Church of England runs. Although of course, just to make matters more complicated, the Church of England and the Church in Wales get special extra “protection” (the legal necessity of which is, I realise, another debate). I’m sure that’s going to make the very many Anglicans who want same-sex marriages in church feel supported, affirmed and encouraged. Or not.

All this is quite technical; the devil or angels will be in the details we don’t have yet; and I’m no lawyer. But here’s my point. Quakers simply can’t be in the business of benefiting from other people’s loss of freedom of conscience, or freedom of worship. We simply can’t.

So when this legislation’s published, I think we have an absolute obligation to scrutinise it closely (or listen to the people who do); to take very seriously any suggestion that there are provisions in it that impede religious freedom; and to call for change before supporting it, if we find that it denies to others what we are claiming for ourselves.

On this very rare occasion, when we seem to have the government on our side – we have to care about the religious groups, particularly the smaller groups and the minorities-within-denominations, who don’t have the government on their side. Because that’s where we came from, that’s normally us.

Needless to say, we don’t have to compromise our own convictions to do this.

In fact I suspect that closer attention to these issues might mean more chance of religious celebrations of same-sex marriage. Perhaps a few congregations, in a congregationally-organised denomination, would agree to start celebrating same-sex marriages long before the whole of the national body was in a position to agree that that was OK.

But the point of principle holds even if that isn’t the case.


4 responses to this post.

  1. “Quakers simply can’t be in the business of benefiting from other people’s loss of freedom of conscience, or freedom of worship. We simply can’t.”

    My feelings precisely – and that’s why I feel slightly queasy about the whole thing.


  2. Religious groups are to be allowed to take their own decision about whether or not to celebrate same-sex marriages. But the Anglicans won’t have that freedom – instead, Parliament will decide the answer for them. That can’t be right. Even if I were an Anglican opposed to same-sex marriage, I would object to Parliament making the rules on matters which are properly for the church to decide.


    • Hi Peter, thanks for that. As it relates to the Church in Wales, which is Anglican but not established, I think you’re absolutely right (and so it seems does the Archbishop of Wales, whom nobody thought to ask before the announcement…). The situation with the C of E seems more complicated; some folk seem to think this provision was necessary because of the special legal status of the C of (and I think, though it’s hard to be sure because of the oddities of the announcement, that that’s what the government is thinking); others including Frank have suggested that it’s legal overkill; everyone can agree I think that the headlines were very unfortunate


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